This story was updated at 1 p.m. EST.
Moscow police briefly detained Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, as he tried to join an unauthorized rally on Tuesday after a court handed him a suspended sentence in a high-profile fraud case.
Police reportedly said they were merely escorting Mr. Navalny back to his home, "in a sign of how unwilling the authorities are to make a martyr of" him, The New York Times reports.
After the sentencing, Mr. Navalny denounced the court’s decision to jail his brother Oleg to three and a half years in prison on the same charges. Opposition leaders argued that to avoid mass protests, a risk associated with jailing Navalny, the Kremlin decided to punish him by jailing his brother. They said the court's decision was a politically motivated move to stifle dissent.
The court found both brothers guilty of defrauding two firms, including a French cosmetics company, and laundering money. Navalny’s three-and-a-half year suspended sentence means he won’t go to prison, but it keeps him under house arrest pending an appeal. His brother was jailed following the verdict.
"The authorities are torturing and destroying relatives of their political opponents. This regime doesn't deserve to exist, it must be destroyed," Navalny told reporters outside the courthouse.
Navalny has become known as President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic for his work as an anti-corruption crusader. He leaped onto the public stage three years ago when he led mass demonstrations to protest corruption in the government and Mr. Putin's inner circle.
In January, he published a report claiming that huge cost overruns at the Winter Olympics in Sochi enriched a small circle of businessmen close to the Mr. Putin, The Christian Science Monitor reported.
Tuesday’s verdict was the latest in a series of criminal cases against Navalny. As The Wall Street-Journal reports:
Last year, he was convicted in an unrelated fraud case. He was initially sentenced to five years in prison, but was unexpectedly released on his own recognizance within days. He later ran for mayor of Moscow, coming in second to the pro-Kremlin candidate with 27% of the vote. Shortly after that race, the court converted his jail term into a suspended sentence.
The court had originally scheduled to announce the latest verdict in January. But the sentencing hearing was moved up after thousands of Navalny’s supporters had planned a rally for Jan. 15.
After the sentencing, Navalny called on his supporters to protest. About 17,000 people have registered on Facebook to attend a rally in front of the Kremlin. Reuters reports that authorities have not given permission for the event and that there maybe arrests as a result.
The Washington Post reports that anti-Kremlin protesters have confronted increased pressures in Russia over the last year as tensions with the West have grown.
But to some Kremlin critics, the falling price of oil and the plunge of Russian ruble raised the possibility that Putin’s grip on power might be weakening.
Yet Tuesday’s verdict demonstrated the unpredictable nature of how justice can be meted against political opposition figures in Russia.
In a sign of Navalny’s influence, the BBC's Stephen Ennis reports that "Kremlin-controlled TV channels have almost completely ignored the verdict in their main news bulletins."